Films with miscreants coming up against even more heinous miscreants is certainly part of the zeitgeist right now with audiences lapping up the likes of “Breaking Bad,” “Dexter,” and most recently, Fede Alvarez’ DON’T BREATHE.
Joining said ranks is writer Patrick Melton and director/writer Marcus Dunstan’s THE NEIGHBOR, which follows a young couple, working on the wrong side of the law running illicit errands to make just enough money to set them straight, who discover the dark and sinister truth about their neighbor and the secrets he may be keeping in the cellar.
To celebrate the recent release of the film in the US and UK and the impending screening at this year’s SITGES – International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia next week, we caught up with Dunstan to find out all about this particularly personal ten-years-in-the-making tauter than taut thriller.
TT: I was surprised to hear that THE NEIGHBOR is a film that’s actually been gestating and metamorphosing for the best part of a decade.
Marcus Dunstan: Oh my gosh. Yes! It was sold the night of our premiere of FEAST. By that time, FEAST had been in post-production for about 18 months and it was going to come out in 50 theatres and only play at midnight … once. And it received an X-rating, although I finally got it down to an R with a few seconds of excision. Who’d have thought a monster movie would get an X-rating? But I strive to do that again someday. That would be amazing.
Anyway, during the after party, I was handed a phone and instructed to step outside and pitch an alternative ending for Dimension and if they went with it then we had something. So I did that and in that conversation we made a sale which was the THE NEIGHBOR script. And that sale allowed Patrick and I to say, “Okay. We’re gonna give this a shot. We no longer have to worry about what we’re going to do next month but we had nine or ten months to really live like that.” Opportunities in this business don’t often knock on your door and you have to start with nothing, or less than nothing. You almost start with death in a way. There’s a hole beneath your feet for every other attempt, and ambition always keeps you awake.
So it was really a chance to go for it. We were writing 24 hours a day. Patrick would write from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and I would write from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and that was to deliver and to compete and that seemed to be the only way. Talent isn’t going to wake anybody up in the morning.
TT: When you say compete, do you mean with other writers or each other or even with yourself and what you’d written so far?
MD: Absolutely. The journey doesn’t stop with the first movie. It’s important and it’s every day and it’s many ideas at a time. It keeps the creative muscles flexing. You’re not in a physical gym but you’re in the mental jungle gym all day long. It was great to have a partner as motivated as Patrick because we had a chance and we hung onto that. In many ways Project Greenlight was a guest pass. It was the equivalent of throwing the first pitch at a game: An amazing feat, but you’re not necessarily on the team yet. So we really went for it and it was fun, but it took a great deal of effort and it still does to this day. It’s nice that ten years later this is the script that was made and my gosh, I love the reviews we’re getting and how people are reacting to it because over those 10 years the script has changed and been rewritten to become more personal to reflect the toughness of this journey and to really do something that is a reflection of how grateful we are to be here and how bloody it was to get there. (laughs)
TT: So what was the driving force that made you decide the project needed to be much more personal? You even set the film where you grew up, right?
MD: It made more sense to imbue the story with as much relatability and as much humanity as possible. It could have been set on a border town but I’ve never lived in a border town and I don’t believe any of the collaborators had done so either but we’d ALL had experience in the heartland and in nature of that kind. The mechanics of the story could function in any number of regions but that was that one extra layer of comfort where we knew which house to get to depict that landscape going in. You know how to tell someone which region you are in so that was a beautiful process to wrap our hands around. And I also thought it was a unique setting for a thriller; you don’t see that too often. You can see the sixty million dollar version, SICARIO, which is about as great as a border town thriller gets, and so it was like, “Okay. Our million dollar movie doesn’t go to that length and doesn’t have to. Why don’t we make a version that we can and that will allow it to stand tall. And that meant going to the heartland. And that inspired research for the type of crime and trafficking and what not that happens through there and that was all the more terrifying because the backdrop was almost a Norman Rockwell postcard. It was like, “Holy cow! This happened here? I never knew this and I grew up here!”
TT: So you did plenty of hands on research and spoke to locals to find out what really had gone on there?
MD: Yeah. And how about this? Our first location where we were going to shoot was Ohio, which is battling its own mass trafficking epidemic, but we ended up shooting in Mississippi who had successfully conquered that. So the remains were still there but the present threat was diminished considerably. It was haunted by a few of those moments and so that imbued us with an authenticity that you couldn’t create with any size of budget; it just simply had to be in the air … and it was.
TT: When you wrote the original script the best part of a decade ago, audiences weren’t as familiar as they are now with premises that focused on criminals dealing with even worse criminals. Now we see things like “Dexter” or the recent DON’T BREATHE and a long list of etceteras. What was your specific inspiration for choosing that route that is proving so popular with audiences of late?
MD: This absolutely fascinates me and those are some of the movies that I most love. And when you have an actor as gifted as Josh Stewart and another as gifted as Alex Essoe and someone as committed (and holy cow, you’ll never see him like this again) as Bill Engvall, you want to push them and start layering in the humanity. And I think that if we were in the age of Abraham Lincoln, you couldn’t really tell a story like this. We’re just trying to figure out not who is the best person for a job but who is the least evil for it. I mean, oh gosh, it’s going to reflect in movies. You can see how most of the movies that don’t want to deal with it are set in outer space whilst others throw more superheroes at it thinking maybe the noise will distract from the real world. But THE NEIGHBOR was more like, “No. Let’s look at what the real world is.”
TT: You talk about your three leads there. I believe that, although the characters were already there on paper, they changed substantially once you had your actors in place.
MD: That is absolutely true. They were inspiring scenes. They were inspiring obstacles and challenges because it was such a delight to see these people come to life. 10 times out of 10 it was all about layering in humanity in the “villains” and seeing a patriarch look after his loved ones and seeing Dad become the director in the performance of his children to get away with something quite devious. And then with John and Rosie it was quite the opposite. It was adding more and more primal anger to moments where you saw how much they loved each other based on what they would do to someone who threatened the others.
TT: In terms of directing the actors, did you use any specific tactics to create a cold chemistry between the “protagonists” and “antagonists” in the film such as keeping them apart between scenes or anything like that?
MD: I tried to do the exact opposite actually. I wanted to humanize everybody and create an atmosphere that is jovial. Rather than create intimidation to inspire someone who is acting intimidated or intimidating, to get so close and happy and excited meant that when the camera came on you were encouraged and you feel safe enough to go there. It’s not easy but it’s a nice thing to do. It’s like, “What would you rather do, just as a life experience?” You can scare someone for real or you can make them laugh so hard that when they have to pull their own mechanism back and place gear, they understand how close laughing is to shaking. You just take the fun out. (laughs)
TT: Just to wrap up. Can you tell us a little about what you’ve got coming up after THE NEIGHBOR. I know there have been umpteen talks of a third entry in THE COLLECTOR franchise. Have talks of that resumed given the success of THE NEIGHBOR?
MD: It’s always financial with that. You just have to raise enough of a budget for that to make it a possible reality. Who knows? Anytime the bullhorn is opened up in response to a project that has high demand, especially now with THE NEIGHBOR on the festival circuit, it has become quite clear that there is an audience for a sequel and I think we have the right story too. It would be nice to get back in the ring and we’re all game to do it.
TT: Well thank you so much and I hope to maybe see you in Sitges very soon where THE NEIGHBOR will be screening.
MD: Right on, Howard. Well thank you very much. I appreciate it.
As we mentioned, THE NEIGHBOR is out now and will also be screening at this year’s SITGES – International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia. The film comes with a hearty recommendation from TERROR TIME (full review right here) and we’ll leave you with the UK trailer to whet your appetite…